Stephen Ross Dooley got his winemaking start early, as a teenager in Mankato.

"When I was a junior in high school," he said over a recent lunch at Meritage in St. Paul, "I asked my mom 'How is wine made?' This was 1970 and there was a little winemaking shop in Mankato, believe it or not. So I started in with rhubarb wine, banana wine, raisin wine.

"It was horrible stuff, but seeing a 5-gallon or 1-gallon jug fermenting was fascinating."

Still, Dooley's career path wasn't cemented until his early college days at Mankato State, when he spotted a Time magazine (Nov. 27, 1972) with Ernest and Julio Gallo on the cover.

The article ("In California, There's Gold in Them Thar Grapes") described a wine program at Cal-Davis. Click. "Well, that tied in with my interest in agriculture and [stage whisper] I've got to say this carefully, an opportunity to explore a world outside Minnesota. My brother was out there, and I transferred in 1975 to Davis and graduated in '77."

He started literally at the bottom, shoveling pomage (the pulpy aftermath of pressing the juice from the fruit) out of fermentation tanks at Louis J. Martini winery in Napa; apprenticed in South Africa and Australia, and within two decades had his own winery.

Stephen Ross Wine Cellars' prime focus is Central Coast pinot noir and chardonnay, but he makes a dandy cabernet under the Flying Cloud label and several other varietals.

"I have two non-oaked chardonnays," he said. "One is called pinot gris, and the other is called albariño."

The latter is part of an emerging trend in California: the ascension of the albariño grape, normally associated with a region in Spain just above Portugal. "Our albariño is closer to viognier than I'd like for it to be with the florals," Dooley said. "It's got nice body in the mid-palate and good acidity."

Both whites are part of another West Coast trend: the move away from wood-laden wines. "We use less new oak than we did 10 years ago," Dooley said. "For a while the oaky wines' scores went up. But we've backed away from the style that's overripe and overoaked. We want wines that are nicely balanced with oak."

And then the homeboy come out a bit. "I use no American oak, just French and Minnesotan," he said, citing the Staggemeyer Stave Co. in Caledonia, Minn., as a prime source of his barrels. And while Dooley has fully embraced his work and life in California, he loves coming back to visit his mother in Mankato and his friends. The weather, though, he can do without.

"My body's been away so long, it's tough. Mentally I can handle it but physically ..." he said. "But after a little while I can feel my mouth starting to talk Minnesotan, especially the 'o's."

Coming home is rewarding in another way. Minnesota is the winery's third-largest market outside California, part of what seems a rather oddly matched trio.

"Our biggest market is New York, then Louisiana and Minnesota," Dooley said. "The restaurateurs in New York appreciate this style, and the ones in New Orleans do, too. You don't have to be on the cover of the Wine Spectator for those folks. They want good wine at a good price."

For Dooley, who also serves as a consultant for several other wineries, that means producing food-friendly wines that are not as high-octane as most California offerings. "We can sell more wine when the alcohol's lower," he said, "and we can drink more wine when the alcohol's lower."

So the goal from the get-go is balance. Dooley is not an adherent of the notion that wines showing too much alcohol or tannins or jammy fruit upon release will achieve harmony in time. An avid gardener whose uncle was a University of Minnesota agriculture engineer, he strives to control the tannins and alcohol levels (below 14 percent for his pinot noirs) in the vineyard.

"If a wine is loaded with harsh tannins, will that melt away? No," he said. "Twelve, 15 years ago, we wanted to believe that the imbalance would resolve itself.

"Now we know to make wines that are ready to be consumed. If people ask 'When should we drink it?' I point to my watch and say 'Oh, about 6 o'clock tonight.' "

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643